Birth of a Nation's Music


Here's a version of a familiar song with lyrics you may not have heard:

Yankee Doodle came to town,
For to buy a firelock (a musket)
We will tar and feather him,
and so we will John Hancock.

The tune, which originated in Great Britain, was mockingly sung here by British troops – until it was taken up, with very different words, by the Colonials. Songs, particularly ones containing inspirational texts on the subject of liberty, played a huge role in the Revolutionary War. This was the beginning of an American sound that was fresh, free and fearless – as we'll discover in this Active Minds music program.


Imagine a time in this country, back in the mid-1700s, when British soldiers patrolled the streets of the Colonies, a time when arrests were made of anyone daring to object to the tyrannical rules, regulations and taxes established by the occupying Brits. Those taken into custody often suffered humiliating public punishment. Slowly and quietly, resentment turned to thoughts of revolution. It began with secretly distributed pamphlets and single-sheet broadsides that intelligently expressed political and social views drawn from the thoughts of ancient and contemporary thinkers. Also out of view of the foreign troops were hymns of liberty enthusiastically sung in churches throughout the colonies. Beloved tunes were given new printed words and distributed to the congregation. That way, should a group of Redcoats stroll by a church, they'd think nothing of the familiar hymn they overheard. But consider the new words to an old church favorite from 1778 by the revered composer William Billings: Let tyrants shake their iron rod/ And Slavr'y clank her galling chains,/ We fear them not, we trust in God,/ New England's God forever reins. Then, there's the curious tale of “Yankee Doodle,” brought over by the British soldiers and playfully revised to poke mean-spirited fun at the sloppy dress and habits of the Colonials. This simple melody was soon taken up by the locals, who in turn mocked their adversaries, while occasionally coming up with some shockingly off-color lyrics for their own amusement. There were other songs, ballads and hymns that originated overseas –  hundreds of them brought over by immigrants and sung in homes, churches and in theaters throughout the Colonies (John Gay's earthy “Beggar's Opera,” popular in London, was a big stage hit over here). As anti-British feelings grew, the desire for an independence, blessed by the Almighty, continued to flourish, showing up increasingly in Colonial music. Many of the brave writers of political pamphlets, such as Robert and Thomas Paine, also contributed fresh lyrics to familiar tunes. And many of those melodies stuck around, even after the British had been vanquished. In 1798, Robert Paine penned the words to a campaign song for John Adams, using a well-traveled old melody, “The Anacreontic Song” – a tune that had evolved into a popular drinking round before being finally fitted to the words of an inspiring (and soon-to-be world-famous) patriotic poem by Francis Scott Key. As the newborn country began to expand, its churches continued to serve as a breeding ground for a fresh, spirited harmony that would evolve into an American music steeped in gracious simplicity and noble sentiments.  The rich sounds of Southern Harmony, heard in the shape-note singing of “The Sacred Harp,” gave rise to stirring hymns and, in the mid-1800s, a memorable songbook by the immortal Stephen Foster. Though it would be a while before native-born composers felt confident enough to write for symphony orchestras (which were slowly being born in the larger East Coast cities), some, such as Anthony Philip Heinrich, did write orchestral music as early as 1820. But it wasn't until the remarkable American pianist/composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk began touring the country with virtuosic pieces that bubbled with the sound of the Caribbean and Central and South America that an exciting sound emerged, soon recognized around the world – fresh, new melodies and rhythms from a new nation entering proudly into a new world.

Exploration Questions

  • What role did European classical-music traditions play in the early evolution of American music?
  • What is shape-note singing and how important was it in the development of early-American music?
  • What was the Anacreontic Society, and how did its love of music contribute to our culture?

Reflective Questions

  • Have you ever thought about the meaning of those familiar, goofy lyrics to “Yankee Doodle”?
  • Have you wondered about the origins of some of those church hymns you've sung on Sundays – or explored their origins and composers?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Steel, David Warren. The Makers of the Sacred Harp (Music in American Life). University of Illinois Press. 2010. 240 pages. A definitive and enjoyable look at the vibrant world of shape-note singing that began in early-American churches, and continues to excite singers and listeners today.
    Click here to order
  • Ferling, John. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. Oxford University Press. 2009. 704 pages. Yes, this is a big book, but it tells the story of the war with such vivid detail and in such readable fashion that you may have trouble putting it down. As Ferling clearly states, the fact that the Colonists actually drove the British out emerges as miraculous – suggested in the title (originally a quote from George Washington, by the way).
    Click here to order